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5 Matches Not to Miss at the European Championship
FILE - In this Sunday, July 1, 2012 file photo, the Spanish team poses with the trophy after the Euro 2012 soccer championship final between Spain and Italy in Kiev, Ukraine. The European Championship has a reputation for being the soccer fansí favorite tournament on the global calendar. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader, File)
GRAHAM DUNBAR, AP Sports Writer
GENEVA (AP) — Every fourth summer, football lovers tune in to what many see as the tournament for the purists on the global calendar.
The European Championship is often more fun than the World Cup, where the first-round group stage has more mismatches and can be too cautiously played.
The UEFA-organized tournament enjoys a reputation for hitting higher standards from first kick-off with no weak spots in the lineup.
Now UEFA has added to the perfect 16-team format, and a 24-nation Euro 2016 will stretch to 51 matches over 31 midsummer days in France.
Could 20 more matches mean less must-see action as top teams are kept apart for longer? Maybe.
Still, there is appointment viewing from the first whistle on June 10, even without including World Cup winner Germany facing Poland and Robert Lewandowski.
Here are five matches and story lines that stand out:
FRANCE vs. ROMANIA (June 10, Paris)
The host nation kicks off a major four-yearly tournament. What more do you need?
This opening match is heavy with emotion at a national stadium which was a target for suicide bombers who failed to get access to France's friendly against Germany last Nov. 13.
All of Paris will be on high security alert, and France will be determined to show it is a nation and national team united.
France stars like Paul Pogba, a flamboyant midfielder, and speedy forward Antoine Griezmann can help ensure the post-match focus is about events on the field.
ALBANIA vs. SWITZERLAND (June 11, Lens)
There has quite simply never been an international match like this.
Brothers in opposition, players with close club ties, and possible futures together with a different national team immediately after the tournament.
Both squads have several players who were eligible to represent either country, because their ethnic Albanian families have moved from the former Yugoslavia to Switzerland since the 1980s.
Each has a Xhaka brother — Taulant for Albania and his younger brother Granit, a Switzerland star — who would be the first brothers in opposition at a Euro tournament.
Opponents on June 11 could be Kosovo teammates in September. The Balkan republic got FIFA membership weeks ago and will join a World Cup qualifying group. The issue of transferring allegiance is on hold until after the competition.
ENGLAND vs. RUSSIA (June 11, Marseille)
A prime-time fixture on the first Saturday could launch a young England team as Europe's most watchable.
If few would bet on England to win Euro 2016, more would wager on it playing in the most exciting match.
Coach Roy Hodgson has a core of talent from a thrilling Tottenham team, plus late-blooming Jamie Vardy whose goals lifted Leicester to a Premier League title that renewed neutrals' enthusiasm for football.
Russia helped light up Euro 2008, and needs to put a dull Fabio Capello-coached era behind it.
Get used to seeing Russia at this time of year: It hosts the Confederations Cup next June and then the 2018 World Cup.
SPAIN vs. CZECH REPUBLIC (June 13, Toulouse)
Does two-time defending champion Spain still have it?
Yes, at club level, having swept up every European trophy since before the 2014 World Cup.
But Spain's aura of invincibility vanished two years ago, when an aging team was the first eliminated after being outplayed by the Netherlands and Chile.
Coach Vicente del Bosque remains but the loyalty — arguably, too much — he showed some players in Brazil is over, judging by this squad selection. Tournament newcomers include 35-year-old Athletic Bilbao forward Aritz Aduriz.
The Czechs missed the World Cup but offer a tough start. They topped a tricky qualifying group, despite conceding goals in every game, and with better results away than at home.
BELGIUM vs. ITALY (June 13, Lyon)
Europe's top team in the FIFA world rankings against tournament veterans any title hopeful should measure up to fans' high standards.
No. 2-ranked Belgium has been a fashionable choice since before the 2014 World Cup with a golden generation of players to call on.
Still, its underwhelming World Cup ended with a tame quarterfinal loss to Argentina.
Star players also have much to prove. Eden Hazard will certainly be fresh after a low-key season at Chelsea, where Italy coach Antonio Conte is headed next.
Italy was beaten 3-1 by Belgium in Brussels last November, and is without injured playmaker Claudio Marchisio, but the Azzurri are always an essential chapter of every tournament's story.